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Two Whitman College seniors will have the chance to travel the world and pursue knowledge thanks to awards from the Watson Foundation.

Evangelos Sarantinos '20, a biology major from Seattle, Washington, and Cameron Conner '20, a rhetoric and politics double-major from Spokane, Washington, are recipients of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

Whitman has received 51 Watson awards, 14 of those in the past 10 years, said Keith Raether, director of the Office of Fellowships and Grants.

“The aim of the Watson is to give newly minted graduates of unusual promise a full year of discovery anywhere but in the safety of home — the U.S. There's liberty but also responsibility in this,” Raether said. “The fellowship privileges the exercise of the imagination, but it also puts self-reliance to a huge test. Can you navigate the world entirely on your own for a year? The journey is solitary and at the same time communal through the experience of new cultures.”

Evangelos and Conner will each visit four countries — six countries between them — on their separate journeys. 

“The Watson rewards intention and direction, and both Evangelos and Cameron have this. There's an urgency to their projects. Most of all for Watson, there's an organic fit between person and project,” Raether said. “Cameron's exploration of the intersection of ‘common wealth’ and well-being of communities is a direct extension of his leadership before and during his time at Whitman. Evangelos' focus on caregiving in his investigation of rare diseases is a through-line in his personal life and studies.”

Conner will spend his year exploring the ways different communities come together to meet the needs of all members and build well-being. Conner has been passionate about community-building activities since his youth — he’s a certified EMT, worked as a high school wrestling coach, and was a resident advisor and student academic advisor at Whitman. He was raised splitting his time between Spokane and Nepal, where his parents work with refugees. In 2014, Conner helped co-found the nonprofit Conscious Connections Foundation with his parents.

Last year, Conner was recognized for his community service with the Newman Civic Fellowship awarded by the national nonprofit Campus Compact. For the past year, he has been an intern for the city of Walla Walla, organizing the Walla Walla Neighborhood Engagement Program.

During his Watson, Conner will take his community building experience abroad to study very different approaches to community wealth building. He will visit communities in the United Kingdom, Peru, Spain and Mongolia. 

“It ranges from how to build really intimate relationships in a remote, rural area; to how can a large corporation function in this global system; to how can we then fight for these systems, as individuals, as collectives, as social movements, working toward a sustainable future,” Conner said.

Sarantinos will use his Watson experience to study rare disease and caregivers around the world. His project is born out of personal experience: as a child his younger brother, Luke, was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare mucopolysaccharide (MPS) disease caused by a recessive gene.

Sarantinos, who is also a certified EMT and wildland firefighter and volunteers at Walla Walla County Fire District 4, will travel to Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Australia studying different aspects of rare disease research and caregiving. 

He will work with researchers recruiting MPS patients for clinical trials, a mobile caregiving service, fundraisers and doctors. Through all the research and travel, Sarantinos has two goals: One, to spread knowledge about rare disease research and caregiving to benefit the lives of patients. The second is much more personal. 

“I want to become a better caregiver for individuals like my younger brother,” he said. “That’s going to be with me for my whole life — or as long as his disease allows me to be a caregiver for him.” 

Travel restrictions and concerns around COVID-19 may delay Sarantinos and Conner from embarking on their trips immediately after graduating from Whitman this May. However, both continue to remain in contact with their partners in other countries and hope to get on the road as soon as they are able to do so safely.